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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Chichester Festival Theatre


  Rupert Everett/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Considering Peter Shaffer’s long and distinguished association with the Chichester Festival, it is totally appropriate that his 1979 play Amadeus should be chosen to relaunch the company’s refurbished theater. The building’s subtle makeover, at a cost of £22 million, successfully retains the basic look and feel of the place while at the same time adding 100 extra seats to the hexagonal auditorium, improving the backstage facilities and enlarging the foyer. Otherwise it’s business as usual.
Though the theater has, over the years, impressively presented some large-scale plays and musicals, you have to go way back to 1964 with the world premiere of Shaffer’s epic drama The Royal Hunt of the Sun to find a production as impressive in its scale as Jonathan Church’s revival of this hugely enjoyable yet highly fictionalised account of the rivalry between the foul-mouthed, child-like Mozart and the hard-working, God-fearing Antonio Salieri, court composer to Emperor Joseph II of Austria.
The situation, as envisioned by Shaffer, is awash with conflict and contrast – perfect ingredients for a compelling personal drama. Salieri, alone among his peers, instantly recognises the overwhelming genius of the upstart Mozart, with his infantile high-pitched giggle, his scatological turn of phrase and his over-weaning arrogance. Why, he asks, would God choose such an unlikely little runt to be his conduit, while he, Salieri, a man so God-fearing and so much worthier, is doomed to mediocrity and oblivion? There is, of course, no answer. Only recriminations.
Though the play is called Amadeus, it is Salieri who is the true protagonist. His all-consuming hurt at God’s betrayal, the resulting bitterness, and the guilt that incessantly gnaws and eats away at him for plotting Mozart’s downfall, combine to form a compelling revenge drama of suitably operatic proportions.
In reality, Salieri was not the “mediocrity” Shaffer makes him out to be. On the contrary, he was a musical heavyweight who contributed substantially to the operatic vocabulary of his time and numbered among his pupils Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt. And although there is no doubt he considered Mozart a rival, he promoted his music whenever he could. But none of this really matters. As a piece of drama that pivots on the deadly sin of envy, Shaffer’s popular hit continues to impress and intrigue.
Church’s passionately acted and directed production is played out on a set (by Simon Higlett) dominated by glittering crystal chandeliers, reflecting mirrors and panels that part to reveal smoke-filled tableau depicting some of Mozart’s greatest operas, extracts of which leave you in no doubt why poor Salieri was so angry and frustrated.
For Amadeus to maximise its dramatic potential, it needs two actors of exceptional ability. In Rupert Everett as Salieri and Joshua McGuire as Mozart this revival is blessed. Everett, who opens and closes the play as an old man in the final hours of his life, is for the most part seen as the younger, courtly and physically imposing composer stricken by anger at the trick God has played on him. He has real presence and authority. At times his voice takes on an unattractive rasp and gruffness, and at the performance I attended he fluffed several of his lines, incorrectly giving a date as 1891 rather than 1791. But these gremlins will doubtless disappear in future performances.
As the child/man Mozart, McGuire is certainly as good as Simon Callow in the original National Theatre production and Tom Hulce in the Oscar-winning 1984 screen version. As written, the role allows for less varied interpretations than the more complex Salieri, but McGuire’s decline from uber-arrogant, obscenity-spewing wunderkind to impoverished and sickly outcast breaks your heart.
The supporting players are all well cast, with Jessie Buckley especially good as Mozart’s put-upon wife Constanze. Chichester has another hit on its hands, worthy of a West End transfer.


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